Dramatic Vocalise Database

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)

Flos Campi (1925)

Vaughan Williams again returned to wordless singing/dramatic vocalization shortly after his Pastoral Symphony, in Flos Campi (1925), a suite for viola, orchestra, and wordless chorus. A review of the premiere the following month in the Musical Times provides specific details regarding the performance:

The word “suite” is misleading since the six movements that comprise the piece, while distinct, follow one another without a significant break. The work is more like a free-flowing rhapsody, a symphonic poem, or fantasia in six subdivisions. Each of these sections is prefixed with a quotation in Latin from the Song of Solomon, but while these provide a clue to the meaning of the music, they are never sung. The chorus intones specified vowels instead of words, and is given such indications as “Extreme head voice. Lips nearly closed. (‘ur’),” “(M) closed lips,” “(open) Ah,” etc. The chorus is present in each of the six movements, of which select excerpts will be discussed here.

The piece opens with a rhapsodic, bitonal dialogue between oboe and viola, the oboe repeatedly presenting a variant of the vocal motive from the fourth movement of the Pastoral Symphony, echoed by the viola, before the entrance of the strings con sordino.

Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi, mvt. 1, m. 1 2

This opening is also marked Lento (senza misura) and lacks bar lines, like the sections with solo voice in the Pastoral Symphony. After these ideas are developed in the orchestra, the chorus finally enters, singing the vowel “Ah.”

The third movement begins with a viola cadenza comprised of the motivic material of the opening oboe solo, followed by the chorus with a motivic idea similar to the primary choral theme in Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé.

Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi, mvt. 3, mm. 97–106 3

Following a climax for full orchestra, and another viola cadenza, the opening oboe motive, harmonized and in rhythmic augmentation, appears (for the only time in the piece) sung by the chorus.

Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi, mvt. 3, mm. 124–25 4

The final movement is a D-major benediction, which Herbert Howells referred to as a “diatonic fulfillment of longing.” 5 The simple chant-like melody heard at the opening is highly reminiscent of “O Sacrum Convivium,” the ending section of “Love bade me welcome,” the third of the Five Mystical Songs.

Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi, mvt. 6, mm. 261–66 6

Eventually the chorus enters (m. 313), singing this same material for thirty-five measures over a sustained pedal D in the strings before fading away (niente). Suddenly the oboe and viola interrupt with the material from the opening of the work before the chorus resumes its benediction. The final chord, an unresolved dissonance, suggests that the mystery, whatever it may be, remains unresolved.

In a 1929 review of the first published full score (1928), the editor of the Musical Times used the term “mystic” in reference to Flos Campi, recalling Holst’s earlier “Neptune, The Mystic” from The Planets, and Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs.

The association between “mysticism” and Vaughan Williams’s style during this period, in particular Flos Campi, was echoed in later articles, and even subtly criticized in Edwin Evans’s review of the premiere performance of Vaughan Williams’s “masque” Job in 1931.

Not all were as accepting of Vaughan Williams’s radical new work as his previous pieces, and in this case the wordless chorus drew criticism from A. E. Purdy in a 1930 Musical Times review of the premiere:

In the following issue an anonymous author, under the pseudonym “Descant,” countered Purdy’s opinion, writing in support of the chorus in Flos Campi.

(Nauman 2009, 168–74)



I. Sicut Lilium inter spinas

III. Quaesivi quem diligit anima mea

III. Quaesivi quem diligit anima mea

VI. Pone me ut signaculum super cor tuum


1 C [pseud.], “London Concerts,” Musical Times 66 (1925): 1024.

2 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi (London: Oxford University Press, 1928), 1.

3 Ibid., 17.

4 Ibid., 19.

5 Christopher Palmer, liner notes to Flos Campi, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Hyperion CDA20420, 14.

6 Ralph Vaughan Williams, Flos Campi, 44.

7 Anonymous, “Reviews of Music,” Music & Letters 10 (1929): 207.

8 Edwin Evans, “London Concerts,” Musical Times 72 (1931): 745.

9 A. E. Purdy, “The Human Voice as an Orchestral Instrument,” Musical Times 71 (1930): 252.

10 Descant [pseud.], “‘Flos Campi,’” Musical Times 71 (1930): 353.